Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Blogger) will remember that I served for many years on the National Executive Council (NEC) of UNISON. Over those years I blogged frequently about my work as an NEC member and the only occasionally tedious goings-on at the UNISON headquarters.
In the last week, something has happened which never happened in all my years on the NEC. Paid officials of the trade union have withdrawn from a committee meeting whilst it was in session and have subsequently been instructed by the General Secretary not to attend further committee meetings, which the General Secretary has purported to postpone, although she has no power to do this. An authoritative report of this unprecedented development is available online here.
The General Secretary has not simply exceeded her authority by purporting to postpone meetings of committees of the NEC, she has acted in direct contravention of the Union Rule book which states that; “The General Secretary shall act under the direction of the National Executive Council.” (Rule E.3.1) Happily, it appears that members of the NEC are not allowing themselves to be prevented from meeting by this unfounded administrative diktat from a paid official.
I am very sorry to see this conflict at the top of the trade union of which I have been a member since its inception, but it is very very clear that the fault lies with the General Secretary for exceeding her authority and acting in contravention of the Rules adopted by UNISON members to govern our affairs. This is not a dispute between different groups of members on our National Executive, but between those who would respect the UNISON Rule Book and those who would not.
I hope that all members of our NEC will support the unanimous decision of their Staffing Committee to go ahead with a meeting in the absence of officials, who had been wrongfully instructed to stay away, so that the committee could discuss recommendations on conference motions to be considered by the NEC. Certainly, those members of the NEC who objected to certain decisions taken at their October meeting on the grounds that these were contrary to rule or that they trespassed on the authority of the National Delegate Conference must surely now stand with their NEC colleagues in defence of the Rule Book and of the process whereby the NEC considers its submissions to Conference through its committees.
This is the latest skirmish in a battle which is as old as UNISON itself. UNISON’s very first National Delegate Conference in 1994 agreed an amendment to what is now Rule B.2.2 to clarify that UNISON is a “member-led” union, rather than a “member-centred” union, as was set out in the Rule Book at the time of the merger of the former partner unions.
The latter form of words was defended by those who wanted to see a trade union in which expert officials would service and guide the membership. The successful amendment to the Rule Book, which has since stood the test of time, reflected the views of those who believe that the direction and policy of the trade union should be determined by its membership whom the paid officials should serve as organisers.
As anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the history of our trade union will know this rule has been honoured as often in the breach as in the observance. Whether it has been in unjustified politically motivated disciplinary action against left-wing activists or in politically motivated seizure of control of left-led branches, paid officials of our trade union, with the sanction of the National Executive, have, from time to time, asserted an authority they do not have and made a nonsense of the rule amendment agreed back in 1994.
Now, for the first time, a majority of members of our NEC will not support such action and are seeking to hold the union machine effectively to account. It would appear that elements within the union machine are uncomfortable with this state of affairs.
It is perhaps remarkable that the trigger for this unprecedented action by UNISON officials appear to have been decisions of the Finance Committee in relation to adding accountability to decisions around staff using UNISON funds for personal legal advice and providing transparency on the use of UNISON funds for ongoing release time for some NEC members.
Certainly, there is no provision in UNISON rules to permit staff to make use of UNISON funds to seek legal advice for personal reasons.
I know from personal experience, and have had it on the highest authority, that when UNISON staff take legal action on their own account, they are expected to fund this themselves. I do not know the detail of the concerns which our finance committee were investigating, but I do know that they were quite within their rights to look into this matter.
As to the use of UNISON funds to pay for the release of members of the NEC from their work duties, this has been a long-running issue. For my part, when I was on the NEC I neither asked nor was I ever offered any such support. I negotiated the time off I required from my employer based upon the strength of rank and file trade union organisation locally.
However, in my years on the NEC I did become aware of various examples of NEC members, having been unable to secure agreement of the employer to paid time off for their national duties, being paid by UNISON or having the employer reimbursed for their time.
One right-wing member of the NEC reputedly received more pay from UNISON then she would have received has she had no time off work at all. In another case, a senior NEC member who spent their whole time on their various national duties had not been seen in their own branch for many years.
I was able to work out that certain colleagues were benefiting from such arrangements, because it was obvious, but I never knew any details and I never expected to know any because I was simply an individual member of the NEC with no particular locus in relation to the matter. I did think it odd that those for whom these arrangements were made seemed exclusively to be those upon whom the union machine could generally count for support (or perhaps I didn't really think that was odd at all).
Now that the chair of the Finance Committee has been trying to find out for months what arrangements the trade union is making to pay for the time off of some NEC members, and has been unable to do so, they have acted entirely properly in raising the matter with the Finance Committee.
It is most unfortunate that the conduct of UNISON officials in this matter gives the impression of their having something to hide in relation to the issues of concern to the NEC Finance Committee.
This matter needs to be resolved and the ball is surely in the court of the General Secretary to step back from the provocative action which she has taken and to facilitate proper investigation by the NEC into the use of the funds which belong to UNISON members.